John Schlesinger’s ‘Marathon Man’ is a remarkable film on all levels

One of the most accomplished examples of suspense thrillers in the 1970s, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man is a remarkable film on all levels. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman adapted his own novel for the big screen, and did it quite marvelously with the generous help of a proven acting crew of Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider. John Schlesinger, on the other hand, was eager to do the film as he was terrified that Hollywood resented him for doing The Day of the Locust, a 1975 flick that took a vicious swing at the industry. Even though the Academy mostly ignored Marathon Man, Schlesinger managed to film one hell of a film, a brilliantly tense and ceaselessly exhilarating thriller that perfectly echoed the dark themes of McCarthyism and Nazism, inspiringly worshiping the quality of relentless perseverance needed to survive in such a harsh environment. Michael Small, the composer, was specifically instructed by the director to make musical pieces that would naturally accompany the pain and willpower needed to endure it, a theme most evident in Goldman’s story. A lot of ink has been spilt on the tense backstage relationship of Olivier and Hoffman, great representatives not only of two celebrated generations of Hollywood actors, but also of different acting styles: Olivier was classically trained, Hoffman practices Method acting. What ever their alleged differences might have been, the end result is nothing short of overwhelming, as their on-screen chemistry makes their job seem the easiest in the world. Even if the film hadn’t been made as competently as it luckily was, it would have entered the history books for being one of the first films that made use of the fresh Steadicam technology, amply exploited throughout the film. Its technological importance aside, “it is safe” to say Marathon Man is simply a remarkable thriller that continues to inspire filmmakers and audiences around the world.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read William Goldman’s screenplay for Marathon Man [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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John Schlesinger: The Hollywood Interview.

Marathon Man is one of my favorite films. It had a wonderful sense of foreboding. Was Hitchcock an influence on that film?
Well, I can’t say I was imitating him, although I’m accused of it. You can’t help but be influenced by his mixture of humor and suspense. I hadn’t done a thriller up to that point, and I loved doing it. I got very hooked on making suspense pieces after that. It’s a game you play with the audience that’s unlike any other kind of filmmaking.

There are all the legends of Olivier and Hoffman clashing. How much is truth, and how much is legend?
I think that Olivier didn’t want to improvise and Hoffman did. And it’s true, Olivier’s line “Why doesn’t he just act?” that he said to me, not Hoffman, happened, because Hoffman was trying various acting techniques to appear out-of-it during the dental scenes. When I looked at the dailies I realized there was no reaction from Hoffman’s eyes, so I had to completely reshoot all the close-ups. That’s when Olivier said to me “Why doesn’t he just try acting?” (laughs)

Any advice for first-time directors?
Never take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s a long business getting something off the ground and it takes very great determination. That’s the only advice I can really offer. —John Schlesinger

John Cleese interviews William Goldman, screenwriter of The Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Misery and All The President’s Men. From the BBC Radio show Chain Reaction, first broadcast on BBC Radio 5 in 1991. “I don’t like my writing,” says legendary writer William Goldman, responsible for a vast body of work encompassing novels, screenplays, short stories, and much else. It is a free-form interview, intimate and engaging, in which Goldman, guided by Cleese, explores various aspects of his large body of work.

William Goldman talks about screenwriting and his own past, another brilliant interview with one of our heroes.

Production still photographers: Holly Bower, Peter Sorel & Mary Ellen Mark © Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans Company. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only. Mary Ellen Mark’s book from Phaidon, Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing On Set is highly recommended.

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